Defying state coronavirus order, a thousand pastors plan to hold in-person services for Pentecost
More than 1,200 pastors have vowed to hold in-person services on May 31, Pentecost Sunday, defying a state moratorium on religious gatherings that Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In a letter to Newsom, Robert H. Tyler, an attorney representing a Lodi church that has challenged the governor’s order in court, said more than 1,200 pastors have signed a “Declaration of Essentiality,” asserting their churches are as essential as any grocery or hardware store and should be allowed to reopen.
“We believe you are attempting to act in the best interests of the state,” Tyler wrote to Newsom, “but the restrictions have gone too far and for too long.”
By Wednesday, many counties in California had received approval to reopen establishments — retail business, office buildings, restaurants, shopping centers — as permitted in the second phase of Newsom’s plan to restart the state economy. Churches are not allowed to reopen until the plan’s third phase.
The pastors who signed onto the letter intend to open their churches to parishioners on May 31, with or without the governor’s permission, the letter says. They will advise churchgoers to follow social distancing guidelines.
A day earlier, the U.S. Justice Department warned Newsom that the restrictions he imposed and his plans to scale them back could infringe on religious groups’ constitutional freedoms.
Eric S. Dreiband, an assistant attorney general and the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, questioned Newsom’s decision to keep houses of worship closed until the third phase of the state’s reopening plan while allowing restaurants, offices, shopping malls and schools to open in the second.
Dreiband cited a statement from Atty. Gen. William Barr that religious institutions “must not be singled out for special burdens.”
“The Constitution calls for California to do more to accommodate religious worship, including in Stage 2 of the reopening plan,” Dreiband said.
Several churches have mounted legal challenges to Newsom’s moratorium on in-person services. Federal judges in Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento have batted down all of them, although the Cross Culture Christian Center, a church in Lodi, is appealing its ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal.
In denying the church’s request to keep the state from enforcing the prohibition on in-person worship, U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez wrote that “during public health crises, new considerations come to bear, and government officials must ask whether even fundamental rights must give way to a deeper need to control the spread of infectious disease and protect the lives of society’s most vulnerable.”
If the pastors do, in fact, hold services for Pentecost, it would not be the first time a congregation has flouted Newsom’s order. On Mother’s Day, Palermo Bible Family Church in Butte County held an in-person service; one of the roughly 180 churchgoers subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. County officials said they are now trying to track down every attendee and instruct them to self-quarantine.
“For 7 weeks we have been kept out of our church and away from our church family,” the pastor, Mike Jacobsen, wrote on Facebook. “I am fully aware that some people may not understand that for our church it is essential to be together in fellowship.”
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